Dog Trainer Meagan Karnes builds engagement with her Belgian Malinois
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

Picture this.

You have your dog at a local park.

There are people everywhere.

And your dog…

….remains completely focused on you.

Your dog is pushing you to go to work. He actually wants to train.

It’s not a fairy tale.

In fact, it’s something achievable with every dog, whether you have a pet who goes crazy when he sees other dogs, or you are training your dog to be competitive in sports.

Here’s the secret.

You’ve just got to be better than the environment. And a big strategy in getting yourself there is to prevent your dog from self-rewarding in that environment. Prevent him from getting awesome stuff from anyone but you. Prevent him from finding value in disengagement.

Anytime your dog disengages and gets rewarded from the environment, he will remember it. And the next time he’s around that tempting reward, you can bet he’ll check out once again.

For example, if my dog is given the opportunity to play with another dog during a training session, other dogs will become a big distraction for him moving forward. He’ll want to play. And as he was previously rewarded for checking out with an awesome play session, disengagement will likely follow.

Or let’s say I stop my training to have a chat with a trainer or stranger at the park where I’m working. My dog disengages and tackles the stranger who in response, as people often do, bends down and gives him a good ear scratch. You can bet my dog will check out for awesome ear scratches again next time they are available.

The solution? Keep the dog on a lead to prevent him from getting inadvertently rewarded by the environment.

Sounds simple enough.

But are there times when we want disengagement to happen? When disengagement can provide a big learning experience?

Absolutely.

Here’s the story.

You have two options in any environment. Control your dog, or control the environment.

Most of the time, if you live in the real world, you’ll need to select the first option – at least to an extent. You’ll need to implement management strategies so as not to allow your dog to self-reward disengagement.

But when you have control of the environment, letting your dog completely check out can be an invaluable tool.

Here’s a common scenario.

If people are particularly distracting, and you are around a group of people who will help you with your training (control your environment), you can allow disengagement.

The goal: Allow the dog to explore the strangers and realize that they are hardly as fun as you are.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Instruct the people to completely ignore the dog when he approaches. No eye contact or touch. And certainly no talking.
  2. Allow the dog the freedom to explore the group as he likes. Don’t say anything or try to coax him back.
  3. The dog will explore, and get bored, and should eventually find his way back to you (make sure you practice this in a place with good fencing or indoors, where your dog can’t head for the hills .. and please, only practice this with social dogs.)
  4. When your dog gets bored with the environment and checks back in with you, you can come to life, play and reward your dog.

Now, you have officially become better than the distractions.

The idea here is that, through control of your environment, you are teaching your dog that strangers are pretty boring, and sticking with you is pretty fun.

You can do the same thing with any distraction that threatens to steal your dog’s attention. However, you need to be sure you have either control of the environment (so the dog doesn’t get a huge reward if he explores off lead) or control of the dog (keep him on the leash so that he is unable to access the things he finds particularly rewarding).

You can’t always control the environment. I mean, you can’t ask other dogs to please not play with your rambunctious puppy when he comes bounding over. But even still, you can use controlled disengagement to your advantage by simply keeping your dog on a lead. Then, get strategic and simply let him check out.

…Look at that other dog…

…sniff the tree…

….or stare at the butterfly.

Dog Trainer Meagan Karnes plays Tug with Her Belgian Malinois
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

For this to work, when he comes back to you, you must come to life. Everything else is boring but YOU…you are AWESOME. You are REALLY fun. And you are better than whatever it was he was trying to get at as he checked out in the first place.

Just a quick caveat. If your dog goes nuts when he sees other dogs or people, or has any reactivity whatsoever, you want to practice controlled disengagement on lead, far enough away from the distraction so that he or she doesn’t have a stress response. Best to err on the side of caution and be too far away as opposed to too close, because getting your dog in a position to be reactive changes the game entirely and will obliterate your attempts and rewarding engagement.

Now here’s the million dollar question.

Do I always allow disengagement so I can reward my dog for checking back in?

No.

When the situation dictates and the environment is right, I’ll allow controlled disengagement to teach a lesson. But it’s only a small piece of a much bigger strategy.

Here’s how I get highly engaged dogs … every time.

  1. I work hard to be more fun than the world. I am all about play. And for that reason, I’m pretty cool to be around.
  2. When I’m first teaching my dog that I’m awesome, I’ll take him to all sorts of new places. When we arrive, I get out of the car and PLAY for a few minutes. Then, we go home. No expectations. Just fun.
  3. When in a new environment, I prevent my dog from ever wanting to disengage by teaching him that he’ll never get rewarded for it. Plainly stated I don’t let him get pets and scratches from strangers and I never let him play with other dogs during training sessions. I continue to be fun and to play…a lot.
  4. Once I’ve established that I am REALLY fun (in fact more fun than the environment, which he never gets anything awesome from anyway) I will practice controlled disengagement to further the lesson (but I’ll be honest, getting him to disengage at this point tends to be pretty hard).
Dog Trainer Meagan Karnes plays tug with her Belgian Malinois
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

By laying the foundation this way, I teach my dog that I am better than anything else he’s around. For this reason, he’s anticipating “what’s next” anytime we go anywhere, and he stays focused, waiting for my cue in any new environment he approaches.

And the thing is, I don’t have to stay active. I don’t have to constantly jump around to keep him entertained. I don’t have to keep playing to prevent him from checking out. And I don’t have to constantly compete with my environment.

Why?

Because he’s never gotten rewarded by the distractions so, in essence, they hold no value.

Because the only thing in his environment that provides any level of fun is me..no matter where we are.

And because darn it…I’m fun!

Once that’s established, even if we are on a hike and he’s sniffing and exploring, he is constantly listening for me to give the cue so we can play. And if I do, he’ll stop what he’s doing in a split second … not because I make him, but because he wants to.

Practice controlled disengagement as part of your strategy to boost your dog’s motivation and focus. Teach him that you are way more fun than anything else going on around you. And be sure to have fun while you are doing it.

Play with your dog. REALLY PLAY WITH HIM. Your relationship and your dog’s focus will be better for it in the end.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    7 replies to "The Power of Checking Out: 4 Steps to Boost Your Dog’s Engagement"

    • Charra

      How do you do this with a scent specific trailing dog, that you want to interact with their victim? She’s also become a little tentative about some environmental situations where noise and people are involved. My initial instinct was to “socialize” her. Now I’m trying to figure out how to go back and undo some of that. Grrrr.????

      • Meagan Karnes

        I’m an advocate for training engagement and specific tasks separately. I find they don’t conflict, and my dog still maintains the ability to work independently of me, if I am strategic and if I treat them as separate behaviors. So I would tend to say that I would teach the dog basic engagement and focus work in the way I described, to ensure my dog doesn’t get distracted by people or other dogs, and then, I’d train the search as a very specific task, spending time drive building within that specific context. But my experience has only been with hunting dogs, blood trailing, and tracking. I don’t have direct experience with things like SAR.

    • Steffanie

      So, I love this article, but how do goh incorporate dog-dog play into this? I love my dog playing with other dogs, but obviously would also love for her to be easier to “Break” from play.

      Second question, how would you do this is your husband tends to be the “fun” one? He is more agile and has better condition, so dog loves to play with him rather than me, yet she’s my dog.

      Thanks!!

    • Joanne

      Meagan.. I am in SR also, with a trailing bloodhound. SHe certified our first time and re-certified this year.
      SHe is not a high drive dog like a Mallinois or Dutchie, for example. And, she works for a food reward..she never has wanted to tug or fetch…She knows her job, and when her harness goes on is in ‘working’ mode. When she locates the subject we have a Big party and she knows she’s done well. Even if training in a certain area to get better results she is tuned in to the party and the play at the end.. IS there a way to get her to use a tug or is it better to keep her working methods the same? SHe is a bit over 2 1/2 years old.
      IF distracted when working or training a quiet ‘leave it’ or ‘back to work’ and she is all focused and ready to go on.

    • Ingrid

      Very interesting article, how do you play with your dog? I’m not a super animated person, so I struggle with being exciting. So I am just curious what sorts of things you do during this exercise to play with your dog?

      • Meagan Karnes

        I typically play with toys. Tug play is my go to in most situations 🙂 That or just big reward and praise with food.

        • Ingrid

          Thanks! That makes sense! I was trying to imagine how to play ball or chase when you want to control environment and/or dog.

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